12 Pr. George's Schools Identified for Closing

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

Twelve Prince George's County public schools, most of them inside the Capital Beltway or in the southern part of the county, are targeted for closure next year in a plan to save the cash-strapped system $11.9 million, school officials said last night.

The targeted schools include one middle school, G. Gardner Shugart in Temple Hills, and 11 elementary schools. Six other schools would be converted into five schools that would run from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Two of the six, Eugene Burroughs Middle School and Henry G. Ferguson Elementary, both in Accokeek, would be combined; one of them, Benjamin D. Foulois Elementary in Morningside, would be given a creative and performing arts program.

Students attending schools targeted for closure would be sent to nearby schools or others with available space. Emptied schools would be maintained, and school officials suggested that the buildings could be used for specialty programs such as language immersion.

"I don't know where to begin," said school board member Pat Fletcher (District 3), whose district has eight of the targeted schools. "In looking at the maps that we have been given, I saw it coming because of the decrease in enrollment, the under-enrollment."

But Fletcher said she could support the plan if the schools were filled with programs that were available to her constituents.

"I think it is extremely important that if this consolidation is going to take place, if there are going to be significant programs in there, that the community dictates what programs need to go into those schools," Fletcher said.

All the schools targeted for closure are in areas of under-enrollment, and many are well below capacity. In some cases, the schools have a pattern of low academic achievement. A few of the schools were in poor physical condition.

Berkshire Elementary School in District Heights, for example, has a capacity of 550 students, but only 281 students attend, according to a county report. Shugart Middle is among the schools with long-standing academic problems; the school is in state-mandated restructuring, and only 35 percent of the students who took a state test showed proficiency in math. And an independent study identified Morningside Elementary School in Suitland as one of the county schools in worst repair.

The closures are included in the $1.68 billion school budget proposal as part of a package of $106 million in cuts that would chop about 900 positions, downsize some programs and increase class sizes in first through third grades.

"It provides us with a substantial cost savings," Interim Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said of the school closing plan. "We found more schools that were 60 percent or lower than their state-rated capacity. . . . We're just proposing that as options to be considered."

Prince George's has 209 schools. The number to be closed was double the total projected Dec. 17 when Hite presented the budget plan to the Board of Education. At the time, he proposed saving $5.6 million by closing six schools.

This would not be the first time Prince George's has shut down schools in significant numbers. From 1976 to 1986, the county closed 65.

If approved, the closures would make possible the elimination of 235 jobs, including 12 principals, 10 assistant principals and 36 classroom teachers. The cuts also would affect custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, counselors and educational specialists,.

It is unclear whether the employees would be laid off or reassigned to vacant positions. An additional 310 employees would be transferred, along with their students, to new schools.

Officials expect to save $13.4 million next year through personnel cuts and $3 million through reduced spending on utilities and programs. But the closings and other changes would require some additional spending to transport students, move books and materials, set up the schools that would run from pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, and convert Foulois Elementary to an arts program similar to that offered at Thomas Pullen School in Landover. In the end, officials hope to save $11.9 million in the coming school year, and more in succeeding years.

Eleven of the targeted schools are inside the Beltway, and eight of them are south of Maryland Route 214, which bisects the county. The student population in those regions has been declining in recent years, as it has across Maryland, because of a dip in the birth rate several years ago.

A recent study found that the 128,000-student Prince George's school system had 9,800 excess seats and that 46 elementary, nine middle and five high schools had less than 80 percent of their maximum enrollment. Many of the under-enrolled schools and academically struggling schools are inside the Beltway.

Officials said there will be public hearings on the proposed closings and consolidations before the school board takes a final vote.

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